5 Universities That Are So Old That Put All Others to Shame

These universities are the oldest in the world. Respect.

Institutions of higher learning have existed for more than 2,000 years. The earliest schools have not survived to our times, but the ones founded in medieval times have. In East Asia, these institutions were called academies, in the Muslim world, madrasas; and in Europe, studia or universitas.

None of them were quite like our modern universities, but they were all centers of higher learning. They required several years of study, usually more than seven, and they granted degrees.

Some of the medieval centers, like Oxford and the University of Paris, closed down for some years, nevertheless, they bounced back and made it to our days.

There is a small group of establishments, though, that -in spite of the odds, in spite of bombings, earthquakes, and invasions- never closed their doors.

And here are those resilient centers: the 5 oldest universities in the world that have always been open, without pause.

1. University of Al-Karouine. Fes, Morocco.
859 AD.

This famous school was founded by two immigrant sisters. Fatima al-Fihri and her sister Mariam were from Kairouan (Tunisia), but when they were young they moved to Fes, in Morocco. They had a good life in Fes so, wanting to repay their new community, they decided to found a center for higher education. The sisters got the idea from their hometown, for Kairouan had a famous madrasa (institution of higher learning). They copied Kairoun’s complex, which included a mosque, a library, and the madrasa itself. And named it Al-Karouauine. Fatima used her money to build the madrasa, while her sister used hers to finance the library and the mosque -which holds 20,000 people. Construction began in 859.

Setting two world records
Courtyard with building. The building has Islamic arches and green roof.
Al-Karouauine’s mosque. The building has had a learning center
since the 9th century. (Photo: Ahmed.magdy/CCBYSA4.0)

Both sisters made quite an impact in world culture, for Fatima’s madrasa is considered the “oldest continuously operating university in the world” by the UNESCO and the Guinness World Records. While Mariam’s is the oldest library in the world and houses 4,000 rare manuscripts, along with other texts.

Famous scholars

Since it is an Islamic center, at first it only granted degrees in religious subjects and law. Later on it expanded its curriculum to include grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, history, geography, music, and linguistics. It became a renowned center for learning, receiving students from all over the Muslim world, and even a few from Europe.

By the 14th century this African institution had 8,000 students. Theologian Ibn al-Haj, diplomat and author Leo Africanus, and philosopher Maimonides studied there. While saint and writer Abu Imran al-Fasi, and Sufi scholar Ibn Harazim taught at the madrasa.

Modernization

The Caliph of Cordoba Abdul-Rahman III expanded the madrasa in 956. And the Emir Ali Ibn Yusuf enlarged it to its current size in 1135. In the last decades, to accommodate its students, the university opened four more campuses. In 1947 Al-Karouine formally became part of the educational system of Morocco, and in 1965 it received the official title of university.

2. Al-Azhar University. Cairo, Egypt. 970 AD.

This resilient learning center has survived quite a bit, including a transformation from Shi’ite to Sunni (rival Islamic sects), an earthquake, and a bombardment courtesy of the French army.

A street with stone buildings left and right.
Al-Azhar (left) educates Egypt’s religious and political leaders
to this day. (Photo: Jorge Lascar/CCBY2.0)

Caliph al-Mu’izz, of the Fatimid dynasty, ordered the construction of the mosque in Cairo, in 970. Originally, it had one minaret (Muslim tower usual in mosques), a courtyard, and a place for prayer. Soon, four more minarets were added, along with a spacious school to teach law and religious interpretation.

A radiant beginning

The Fatimid dynasty, that built the center, took their name from Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. So when the time came to name their complex they chose Al-Azhar, a variation of Fatima’s sobriquete Al-Zahraa (The Radiant).

Some classes were open to women since the beginning, perhaps in Fatima’s honor.

Surviving

Al-Azhar began its days teaching Shi’ite thought, but when a Sunni dynasty seized power in Egypt (12th century), the center had to shift its curriculum to align with Sunni precepts. A century later, Al-Azhar survived an earthquake. During the next centuries it gained international recognition and thousands of students flocked to Cairo to attend their free classes.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the institute became a focus of resistance, so the French troops bombarded it (1798).

Modernization

Since then, Al-Azhar has undergone a series of reforms. In the 19th century entry requirements and formal examinations were established, along with the expansion of the curriculum. In the 20th, this African institute was nationalized, more faculties and women colleges were added, and it received the title of university.

Nowadays it has 330,000 students from almost 100 countries. It has campuses throughout Egypt, and houses the second largest library of the country -600,000 volumes, 42,000 of which have been digitized and shared online. It offers degrees in dozens of disciplines including engineering, computer science, sociology, medicine, journalism, physics, finance, performing arts, architecture, archaeology, and, of course, theology and Islamic Studies.

3. Yuelu Academy/Hunan University. Changsha, China. 976 AD.

A garden with buildings and a pagoda.
Yuelu’s original buildings still stand at the center
of Hunan University’s campus. (Photo: Zhangzhugang/CCBYSA4.0)

More than a thousand years ago, China established a system of examinations for civil servants. The idea was that bureaucrats were to be picked among the most qualified people of the country. So whoever passed the exams received a position in government, regardless of his social class.

The four great academies

Therefore by the Song dynasty (960-1279), academies that prepared people for the exams were in high demand, and they had sprung throughout China. The four greatest academies were Yuelu, Bailudong, Yingtian, and Songyang. Out of all the Chinese academies, only Yuelu has remained open without pause.

Yuelu’s early campus

Yuelu was founded in 976 AD under Emperor Taizu, and its campus covered 21,000 square meters. Among its many buildings are the Lecture Hall, the Imperial Book Tower, a Teaching Studio, a series of pavilions and halls, and a Confucian temple. The library received book donations from several emperors. While the main Lecture Hall was used for special events and for listening to the lectures of the academy’s presidents and visiting teachers, such as Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi.

Academies mainly taught literature, law, poetry, government, and philosophy, all of them based on the works of Confucius and his followers. Yuelu’s teachers were selected from accomplished specialists called boshi (doctors), and some of Yuelu’s students published books that became Chinese classics themselves.

From Confucius to engineering

In 1903 Yuelu became a modern university, and by 1926 it was officially called Hunan University. During most of the 20th century its focus was on engineering and technology, but it has diversified and now has 26 colleges, and 46,000 students.

The faculty of History and Philosophy is still named Yuelu College. And the old buildings of the academy stand at the center of the modern campus.

4. University of Salamanca. Kingdom of Leon (Spain). 1134.

When the Queen of Spain was deciding whether to fund Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Indies, she commissioned the scholars of Salamanca to discuss the merits of the idea. Salamanca’s scholars also participated in the Council of Trent and in the drafting of the first Spanish Constitution. And they are recognized as the forefathers of international law and modern economic science.

Royal upgrading
A stone courtyard with the bronze statue of a priest. The courtyard is surrounded by buildings.
The campus of Salmanca has been named the second most beautiful of Europe.
The buildings date to the 15th century. (Photo: Victoria Rachitzky/CCBY2.0)

The institution is first mentioned in 1134, when it was a cathedral school. A few decades later (1218), King Alfonso IX recognizes it as a studium generale, which was the medieval name for a prestigious learning institution that had several faculties and was open to the public. His grandson Alfonso X calls it a university in 1254 and establishes six faculties: canon and civil law, medicine, logic, grammar, and music. The next year, the pope decrees that a graduate from Salamanca can teach anywhere in the Christian world.

A collective of students

Salamanca followed the model of the studium of Bologna (Italy): it mainly taught civil law in a time when theological studies were all the rage. And it was run by a collective (“universitas”) of students that hired the teachers and called the shots. The rector of Salamanca, for example, was a student, advised by a council of eight students.

Renting classrooms

In surprisingly modern fashion Salamanca granted bachelor degrees for professionals, plus licenciaturas and doctorates for those who wanted to teach. In not so modern fashion, the university did not have its own buildings. None of the European universities did in those early centuries. The students would rent local rooms to use as classrooms, or the Church would allow them to use their premises. Bishop Diego Anaya commissioned the first building in 1401, and the antipope Pedro de Luna built several others in 1411. Many of them, though, were destroyed during the French invasion of the 19th century.

A beautiful modern university

Nowadays Salamanca has 30,000 students that can choose from 574 degrees. And Times Higher Education named its campus the second most beautiful of Europe.

5. University of Cambridge. Kingdom of England, Angevin Empire. 1209.

A woman was killed in Oxford in 1209, and the townspeople believed a clergyman from the local universitas was the culprit, since they could not find him, they hanged three other scholars. That started a riot. Which ended with students and teachers leaving Oxford and resettling in greener pastures: Cambridge.

A big stone building surrounded by grass and next to a river.
Clare College, Cambridge University. Students and teachers left Oxford after a riot, and resettled their school at Cambridge. (Photo: Dmitry Tonkonog/CCBYSA3.0)

The new school in Cambridge, like its European predecessors, was run by an association of students (universitas) that chose their own curriculum and schedules, and loaned or rented rooms to use as classrooms. Since most students were clergymen, classes usually took place in Catholic churches like Great St. Mary and St. Benedicts.

The studies

Students first studied logic, rhetoric, grammar, and arts. Then arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. After seven years they received a bachelors degree, and after further study, a masters. Later on, when more faculties opened, they had the possibility to keep studying towards a doctorate in divinity, medicine, or law.

The eventful 16th century

In 1318 Pope John XXII gave Cambridge the title of studium generale. And the institution started coming into its own in the 16th century, a period that was quite eventful. Back then England was a Catholic country. The school had faculties of theology and canon law. But when King Henry VIII cut ties with the Catholic Church, he banned the teaching of canon law at Cambridge (1536). In compensation, he doted the university with a building: Trinity College.

His daughter, Elizabeth I, reorganized the institution and had it recognized by Parliament in 1570. And in 1584 Cambridge University Press was established -and has been publishing ever since, winning the title of oldest functioning press in the world.

Science takes the lead

With theology and law hampered, science took precedence. Isaac Newton taught at the university for 30 years and Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA there. And scientists Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking are among the center’s famous students.

Today, Cambridge’s 19,000 students can roam a library that has three million texts, or the Fitzwilliam Museum that houses collections of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiques. The institution consistently ranks among the six best universities in the world.

Honorable mentions

Ez-Zitouna Univesity. Tunis, Tunisia. 737 AD.

Ez-Zitouna was once among the most famous Islamic learning centers in the world.

Picture of a building with arches.
The mosque of Ez-Zitouna. The madrasa stopped operating in 1964 and reopened in 2012. (Photo: Kassus/CCBYSA3.0)

The complex, that includes a mosque, was built in Tunis in 734. Three years later the school was up an running teaching Islamic Sciences: literature, philosophy, theology, grammar, mathematics, medicine, and astrology. People from all over the Muslim world traveled to study there. And like in other Islamic institutions tuition was free, so the poorest students could study during the day and sleep in the mosque at night.

Among Ez-Zitouna’s famous students are historian Ibn Khaldun, civil right’s advocate Tahar Haddad, and poet Aboul-Qacen Echebbi.

Although it probably is the oldest university still working, it was closed for a while. In 1964 a secularist politician shut down the institution and transferred its classes to the University of Tunis. Ez-Zitouna was reopened in 2012, reorganized, and turned into a university ruled by the Ministry of Higher Education of Tunisia. It now has 1,550 students and three faculties: Islamic studies and civilization, Islamic law, and Theology.

University of Salerno. Duchy of Benevento (Italy). c. 848 AD.

This medical institute was famous in the 10th century, but the exact date of its foundation is unknown.

Modern white concrete buildings with rows of glass windows.
Faculty of Engineering of Salerno U. Salerno was already a learning center in 848 AD. Napoleon closed it down in 1811, and it was reopened in 1944. (Photo: Andrea Durante/CCBY3.0)

It was certainly operating in 848 AD, for there is a document of that date that refers to it as a studium generale. And scholars believe it was founded at least a 100 years earlier than that.

By the 11th century Salerno was receiving students from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. In 1221 its fame was such that emperor Frederick II decreed that only doctors approved by the studium could practice medicine in the Holy Roman Empire.

It mainly taught medicine until the 15th century, when faculties of philosophy and law were added. Napoleon closed it down in 1811, but it was reopened in 1944. And now it has 40,000 students and plenty of faculties and degrees to chose from.

University of Bologna. Kingdom of Italy,
Holy Roman Empire. 1088 AD.

Two story renaissance building with a courtyard in the middle. The stone courtyard is surrounded by arches.
Bologna’s courtyard. The universitas has been teaching law since 1088. It was not active for three years (1217-1220) due to a student strike. (Photo: Wwikiwalter/CCBYSA4.0)

It is widely considered the oldest university in Europe and the model for modern universities. It is Bologna that first called itself universitas almost 1,000 years ago. And it is Bologna that first won autonomy from both state and church, something unheard of in medieval times.

The studium’s forte was Roman law. But in the 14th century it added courses of medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and theology; in the 16th,, Greek, and Hebrew. For centuries it was considered one of the four great universities of Europe, along with Paris, Oxford, and Salamanca.

Famous scholars

In the 12th century it had 10,000 students. Copernicus, Petrarch, Dante, King Enzio, Thomas Becket, architect Leon Battista Alberti, and plastic surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi studied or taught there, among other brilliant minds that have influenced Western culture. The forward thinking institute has had female students since the 12th century. And physicist Laura Bassi, mathematician Maria Agnesi, and philologist Clotilde Tambroni taught at the university in the 1700’s.

The three-year pause

In 1217 Bologna’s city council tried to end the institution’s autonomy, so students and teachers left Bologna. Three years later the council gave in, and the school was re-established. It has been functioning continuously since 1220. Bologna now teaches a broad range of disciplines to its 84,000 students. It has museums, labs, and libraries; and Times Higher Education named it the most beautiful university in Europe.

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